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Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Chris Ewing-Weisz  •  May 21, 2012 @12:57 pm

    I learned a version of mind mapping from my kids, who learned it in school. I found it very useful when preparing sermons (I used to be in ministry): at the centre of the page I would jot the theme idea, then place around it various bits of research, key points, questions, problems, objections, good quotes, and so on. When I had it all down I could see what did and didn’t belong in that particular message, and the various ways points might relate to each other. After some initial culling, refining and experimenting, I would number the points I expected to use and the order in which I expected to use them. Then I’d start at #1 and write my way through the list. Sometimes I ended up not really following the outline, but if my improv failed I always had the map to go back to. It was a great tool and saved me a lot of time and angst.

  2. Luc  •  May 22, 2012 @10:07 am

    Interesting! I can see how mapping would be a useful approach to picking and choosing topics or pieces of an idea. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Charles Scalfani  •  Sep 12, 2013 @7:28 pm

    We developed a tool for organizing information that you may find interesting called Dabitat.

    Checkout the explainer video: http://youtu.be/WceOr90sHWM
    And our Getting Started video: http://youtu.be/MiZiKNPhfxI

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